Fish Fraud

Today's fish special is red snapper Cancun, says the waitress at Tortuga Coastal Cantina. The moderately priced Tex-Mex restaurant on Kirby is decorated with images of Mexican beaches and giant sea turtles, tortugas in Spanish. Many Mexican tortugas, once highly prized by gourmets, are now on the endangered species list. Red snapper is not so abundant anymore either. This year's snapper season is the shortest in memory. The fish sells for up to $10 a pound at wholesale, when you can find any. So it's odd that an inexpensive restaurant like Tortuga offers it as a lunch special for a mere $8.95.

"Is it Gulf red snapper?" I ask the waitress.

"Sí, red snapper," she says.

"Red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico?" I ask again. She doesn't understand English well enough to respond, so she gets a manager.

"No, it's just regular red snapper," he says.

"I've never heard of 'regular' red snapper," I tell him. "Can I see the fish?"

"It's already cut into fillets," he says.

"Can I see the box it came in?" I request. He goes into the kitchen and never comes back. The manager's manager appears.

"The box just says Sysco," he reports.

"I'm sure the name of the fish is on the box," I insist. I stand up and suggest we both go to the kitchen and take a look in the freezer.

"The boxes have all been thrown away," he suddenly remembers.

"Well, then, could you show me the invoice?" I ask. "The name of the fish is on the invoice."

"I don't have access to the invoices," he tells me. Although I know he is lying through his teeth, I feel sorry for the guy. It's his employer that has put him up to this deception. Offering an expensive fish like red snapper and then serving cheap frozen fillets is a great way to increase profits. And it's nearly impossible to get caught.

The Food and Drug Administration says substituting cheap fish for one consumers value more is fraud. But no one enforces these regulations. So Texas restaurants are free to rip you off.

"It's a huge problem," says Robert Del Grande, celebrity chef and co-owner of the highly rated Cafe Annie. "The whole thing pisses me off." By the time the average red snapper is cleaned and filleted, it can cost a restaurant $17 a pound, he says. "People see red snapper on our menu for $30 and they think, 'Hey, I can get that for $8.95 down the street.' If somebody tried to sell you a gold Rolex for $8.95, you wouldn't trust them for a minute," says Del Grande. "But when it comes to food, consumers believe anything."

Del Grande has just come from a restaurant conference in Chicago, and he tells me about an executive from a taco chain in California who sells lobster tacos for $5.99. Someone in the audience asked him where he was getting lobster that cheap, and the taco guy said the lobster was langoustine from South America. Langoustine isn't lobster; it's more like a big shrimp. But people like lobster, so he calls it lobster, Del Grande says in disbelief.

Consumer fraud has become a fact of life in the seafood restaurant business, where changing the name of a fish can have an enormous economic impact. "It's a scam, like taking empty vodka bottles out back and refilling them with cheap vodka," rails Del Grande. "But the whole thing has been going on for so long, I don't know how you can stop it."

The first time I ever got bamboozled with fake fish was at the Elite Café, a Cajun/Creole joint on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. One night in the early 1980s, the red snapper special I ordered didn't taste right. Instead of the firm-fleshed fish I knew from Texas, a pile of tasteless white mush sat on my plate. When questioned, the waiter admitted that this "red snapper" was actually something he called "Pacific red snapper."

Pacific red snapper is what the fish industry calls a coined name. Coining new names for fish with unappetizing monikers has long been a common practice. When Patagonian toothfish was renamed Chilean sea bass, the public didn't seem to mind, even though the fish is not a bass. Fishmongers argued that the name change was a good way to sell an underutilized species and take the pressure off the overfished ones.

But coining names also made craven profiteering possible. Pacific rockfish, or red rock cod, is a bright red fish that typically sells for under $3 a pound, a fraction of the price of Gulf red snapper. After the fish was renamed Pacific red snapper, restaurants began substituting the cheap rockfish for the expensive Gulf fish and made a killing in the process.

When wholesalers attempted the same scam, they caught the attention of the FDA, the federal agency that regulates fish sold in interstate commerce. The agency publishes a list of acceptable names for both domestic and imported fish. Speaking to the National Fisheries Institute in April 1991, FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler said: "There is no place in the seafood industry for those who substitute a less expensive or less desirable species of fish for one that consumers value more. We will seek out those who perpetrate fraud -- and we will bring them to justice."

Unless, of course, those who perpetrate fraud own a restaurant, Kessler might have added. While purveyors have been fairly scrupulous thanks to FDA seizures of mislabeled fish, restaurants have been left to their own devices. "Restaurants are outside our jurisdiction," says an FDA spokesperson. "We can only regulate wholesalers and retail stores -- businesses engaged in interstate commerce." Who regulates fish sold by Texas restaurants? The short answer is no one.

And without any oversight, the food service industry has turned making up names for fish into a creative writing exercise. Purveyors don't even recognize their own inventory items anymore. "I walk into a restaurant that's one of my clients and I look at the menu and I think, 'I've never heard of these fish, who do they buy them from?' " says a salesman for Austin restaurant supplier Ben E. Keith. "And then it dawns on me -- these are my fish with different names!"

One of the imaginative names currently in vogue with restaurants is "scarlet snapper," an alias for Cape capensis, an inexpensive hake from South Africa, and an Indonesian fish formerly known as Malabar blood snapper. Consider yourself lucky if a restaurant is scrupulous enough to say it is serving scarlet snapper. "Anything that's red is usually going to be sold as red snapper, no matter what it is," says Sysco's Todd Smith, who used to be the fish buyer in the restaurant supplier's Houston office. "But you can always tell the real thing," he advises. "If the skin and the tail curls when it's grilled, it's not really Gulf red snapper."

You can blame Paul Prudhomme for the overfishing of redfish and red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. You can blame commercial and recreational fishermen. Or you can blame shrimpers. There's lots of guilt to go around. Prudhomme's involvement began innocently enough when he drew so much attention to Cajun food back in the 1980s. Blackened redfish and red snapper dishes became so popular that the Gulf was virtually cleaned out. Commercial fishing for the once poorly thought of redfish (also known as red drum) has never recovered. The species is now grown in fish farms and retails for around $7.50 a pound.

The Gulf red snapper fishery still survives, but it is at the center of a heated debate. A massive drop in the red snapper catch between 1980 and 1984 prompted restrictions on both commercial and recreational fishing. The National Marine Fisheries Service also mandated that bycatch reduction devices be installed on shrimp trawlers, which kill millions of juvenile red snapper every year. But the Texas Shrimp Association filed a lawsuit opposing the devices, and they were never adopted. The shrimpers recommend that the federally mandated recovery of the snapper fishery be accomplished by further tightening seasons and quotas for fishermen. Fishermen respond that the season is too short already.

The 2001 Gulf red snapper fall season will be limited to the first through the tenth day of October, November and December, or until the quota of 1,635,408 pounds (commercial and recreational combined) is reached. That's a fraction of the abundant catches of yesteryear. Suffice to say, the price of Gulf red snapper shows no signs of coming down anytime soon.

Throughout this long struggle between federal agencies, commercial and recreational fishermen, and shrimpers, public demand for red snapper has remained high. With the fish in short supply and the prices going through the roof, it's little wonder that restaurant owners, especially those who run Cajun restaurants, have sought substitutes.

Pappadeaux, the Cajun seafood chain owned by Pappas Restaurants Inc. of Houston, opened at the height of the Louisiana cuisine's national popularity in the mid-1980s. It offered Gulf red snapper in a variety of preparations. (Pappadeaux's red snapper Pontchartrain, featuring a rich sauce loaded with crabmeat, was my favorite.) But then the Gulf red snapper suddenly disappeared from the restaurant and Pappadeaux's waiters started playing word games.

"They took red snapper off the menu around 1987," a former employee remembers. "The waiters still said we had snapper, but they didn't say it was Gulf red snapper anymore. Customers complained about the fish and got mad at the waiters all the time. But we couldn't tell them the truth, because our managers never told us what kind of fish it was."

The games continued for more than a decade. In the fall of 1999, I had dinner at the Pappadeaux restaurant in Fort Worth. The waiter announced that the day's fish were salmon, mahimahi and snapper.

"Gulf snapper or Pacific red snapper?" I asked.

"Actually, it's bay snapper," the waiter told me. I had never heard of bay snapper before. After 20 questions, the waiter summoned a manager, who gave me the usual runaround.

"It's a snapper that's not found in the Gulf, but in the bays along the Gulf," he said. I have been fishing in the Gulf for years. I knew I was being hoodwinked, but I ate the fish anyway. It wasn't as tasty as Gulf red snapper, but not as mushy as Pacific rockfish. It wasn't until I started researching this story that I figured out what it actually was.

"About ten years ago, they decided sheepshead was an unappetizing name and so they started calling it bay snapper," Jim Gossen at Louisiana Foods told me. Sheepshead is a very common (and very ugly) fish found in the Gulf. It typically sells for less than $4 a pound wholesale. It is not even vaguely related to the snapper family.

The two-piece catfish combo with two side dishes and hush puppies runs me $5.29 at the Piccadilly Cafeteria on West Bellfort. I take my tray to a Naugahyde booth amid a cluster of families out for an early dinner. The fish is slightly flakier than the catfish I'm used to, and it tastes a little stronger. When I've finished eating, I walk into manager Patrick Joseph's office.

"Are you serving Vietnamese catfish?" I ask him.

"No, it's farm-raised. It comes from Louisiana," he replies.

"But does the box say 'Product of Vietnam'?" I ask.

"I'm not sure," he admits.

"Let's go take a look," I suggest. To my surprise, Joseph agrees. He leads me back through the cafeteria's kitchen, warning me not to slip on the wet floors. Then he opens the door to the walk-in freezer. "Farm-raised," it says in large letters on the top of the box of catfish. I spin the case around. The small letters on the bottom of one side read "Product of Vietnam." The cafeteria manager is surprised to learn he was serving Vietnamese catfish.

Last summer, Representative Marion Berry, a democrat from Arkansas, introduced a bill that would require not only wholesalers but also restaurants and stores to correctly label fish -- not all fish, just Vietnamese catfish. In fact, the congressman threatened to withhold support for President Bush's free trade deals if stores and restaurants didn't start identifying this fish correctly. Berry isn't all that concerned with consumers' rights. It's his catfish farmer constituents he's really worried about. Trent Lott of Mississippi and five other Southern senators have joined the campaign on behalf of the U.S. catfish industry.

Vietnamese catfish is the hottest fish on the market right now. Imports tripled last year to seven million pounds -- already impressive. This year's total may be as high as 20 million. The frozen fillets sell for about 30 percent less than domestically raised catfish, which makes them cheaper by about a dollar a pound.

"It's turning up everywhere," laments Hugh Warren of the Catfish Farmers of America. "Prices are falling, we've lost 20 percent of our fillet market. We're going to lose our industry."

Raised in cages on the Mekong River, which Representative Berry claims is one of the most polluted waterways in the world, Vietnamese catfish are part of the extended catfish family, but they aren't the channel cats familiar to American consumers. The FDA has approved several names for the fish, including basa and Vietnamese catfish; the fish has also been sold under such names as Pacific dory and white roughy. But the main problem, as far as catfish farmers are concerned, is that most restaurants sell it as just plain catfish.

FDA requirements won't allow the fish to be labeled "catfish" without the modifier "Vietnamese" if it is sold in interstate commerce. (Vietnamese officials argue that the "Product of Vietnam" label on the box is identification enough.) But restaurants are under no compulsion to label the fish "Vietnamese."

"We can't even find a restaurant that admits they use Vietnamese catfish," Warren complains. "We did a telephone survey, and every restaurant we contacted swore they were using nothing but American farm-raised catfish. Two million pounds of Vietnamese catfish are coming into this country every month. You tell me where it's going!"

Restaurant companies like Piccadilly Cafeteria, one of the few that admits to buying Vietnamese catfish, don't see any reason why they should label the catfish "Vietnamese." After all, they don't label the crawfish "Chinese" when they get them from Asia, the chain's executives argue.

The Piccadilly people have an excellent point. The politicians' concerns are limited to catfish. But enforcing a federal law requiring restaurants to identify Vietnamese catfish would make it hard to ignore the fraudulent labeling of all the other fish.

Is it illegal for Texas restaurants to lie about what kind of fish they're serving? I asked the authorities in charge. And their answer was a resounding "I don't know, maybe, but it's not my department."

The FDA considers restaurants to be outside its jurisdiction. The Texas Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division has never prosecuted a restaurant for menu fraud, an A.G. official confirms. And while Steve McAndrews, director of the Texas Department of Health's Retail Food Division, thinks species substitution or other misrepresentation of fish is illegal under the health code, he says his office wouldn't be the one to enforce it. Most Texas restaurants are regulated by the more than 100 city and county health departments in the state, he says. The state agency regulates only rural areas that fall through the cracks.

So I started calling city agencies. The Dallas health department never returned my call. But Mario Seminara, the Austin-Travis County health department manager, pointed me to the "truth in menu" laws.

"It's 229.164, section p and q, of the health code," he says. "The law requires food to be accurately identified according to FDA and USDA standards. And subsection 2A says, 'Food shall be offered for human consumption in a way that does not mislead or misinform the consumer.' " There's also a section that says menu claims have to be substantiated.

"Are the FDA's approved names for fish the legal identification?" I ask Seminara. "Yes," he says. "If I choose to enforce it that way. But I've never had a complaint."

Houston's health department director Chirag Bhatt doesn't seem to think truth in menu issues are under his jurisdiction, so I ask him to look up 229.164, p and q. (Thanks, Mario.) After reading the law, Bhatt agrees that maybe his office is the right place to call with fish fraud complaints after all.

"But unless it was safety-related," he says, "we would tell them to contact the state attorney general's office. That's who we feel should handle these kinds of problems."

With no government agency to look out for fish fraud, consumers have to fend for themselves. "Education is the key," says the FDA's Mary Snyder. Consumers should learn about different kinds of fish at the grocery store and cook them at home, the seafood expert advises. When you become familiar with how a fish tastes and what it looks like, it becomes harder for a restaurant to pull one over on you.

If a restaurant makes a point of saying "Gulf red snapper," and the fish costs $20 or more, you are probably getting the truth. The fish is often served with the skin or tail to allay any doubt. But beware of "red snapper" that the restaurant concedes doesn't come from the Gulf -- it could be anything. Also watch out for "lobster" that isn't Maine lobster, and the generic terms "sea bass" and "snapper," which are now used to describe cheap frozen fillets from all over the world. "I also think restaurants should tell you when fish is farm-raised," says Robert Del Grande. But since nearly all salmon, catfish and redfish served in restaurants are farm-raised, there's probably not much point.

Top restaurants are generally a better bet than low-end places when it comes to fish. Cafe Annie, Aries, Ruggles Grill and Tony's put the name of the fish in writing on the menu so there's no mistake. Other high-end seafood spots like Goode Company Seafood and Tony Mandola's list specials on a chalkboard or separate sheet of paper. Vallone's, Pappadeaux, Tampico and others actually put the fish out on display.

But even at expensive restaurants you can sometimes get the runaround. I stopped by Mark's American Cuisine at lunchtime recently and asked what the fish special was. "Snapper," said the waiter.

"What kind of snapper?" I asked.

"Goldentail snapper," he said. When I looked puzzled, he added, "It's from Hawaii, it tastes like sea bass."

When I asked chef-owner Mark Cox about the goldentail snapper, he replied that there is no such fish. The waiter must have confused golden tile fish with Gulf red snapper, both of which were on the menu, Cox said. But the waiter's assuredness and his ad-lib about Hawaii suggests a different explanation. More likely, he was using the tried and true "snapper" ruse because customers respond to the fake name better than they do to tile fish.

But educated consumers are already beginning to change the face of the seafood restaurant business in Houston. In the last two years, Pappadeaux has changed its fish policy. Waiters no longer deliver the "catch of the day" information to customers. Instead, specific fish names are written on a page of the menu. Pappadeaux also is offering a limited special on real Gulf red snapper during this year's season.

"We are trying to be true to species," says Pappadeaux fish buyer John Brock. "Species-specific menus are a trend in the last few years." McCormick & Schmick's and even Red Lobster's new menu are species-specific, he tells me.

"Consumers are becoming more knowledgeable and more demanding," Brock says. "People learn about fish at Central Market, or at Whole Foods, and they bring that knowledge with them into the restaurant."

It's nice to know that the Houston foodie community is large enough and vociferous enough to cause restaurants to change their deceptive ways. But it's mind-boggling that no state or local agency is willing to stand up for consumers.

Tortuga Coastal Cantina is owned by Mexican Restaurants Inc., a Houston corporation with 57 restaurants in five states. After my lunch at Tortuga I e-mailed the corporation's CEO, asking what kind of fish they used in their "red snapper Cancun." No one from the corporation ever responded. So I contact Chirag Bhatt.

"I want to register a complaint about a restaurant that claims they are serving red snapper when they were actually substituting something else. Will you look into it?" I ask him.

"I suppose," he reluctantly agrees, after I cite good old 229.164, p and q.

"What will you do?" I ask.

"I will check what they have in their storage facility and compare it to what it says on their menu," he says.

"But the menu just says 'daily fish special,' " I protest.

"Then there's nothing I can do," says Bhatt.

"Why don't you let me take you to lunch?" I suggest. "You can listen to the waiter describe the fish, and then we can go look in the freezer."

"I don't think that would be proper," the health department director waffles.

The world will always be full of people who take advantage of others' lack of knowledge -- cheaters, he philosophizes. But Bhatt doesn't think it's up to his department to stop them: "We have bigger fish to fry."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh